Music and Ministry
By G. D. Erickson
Music is an art that, in one guise or another, permeates every human society.’Encyclopedia Britannica
Music has been called the perfume of hearing, the language of the heart. Its power to move the emotions and communicate feeling has led some to believe it has the capability of transmitting words of the heart that are impossible with language.
Since the beginning there has been music; as far back as we can determine people made music. It was not the complex, sophisticated blends of music we hear today, but primitive sounds that were born of man’s innate urge to express himself with sonance. Mesopotamian instruments have been found which date back some 5,500 years. The ancient Mesopotamian people even devised a method of musical notation. The Egyptians used crude forms of music in the 4000’s B.C. by jingling discs and metal rods together and singing songs.
Music is one of the oldest and most important of man’s art forms. Music has frequent occurrence in the Bible, which will be dealt with in Chapter 3. It is a vehicle of expression for man’s celebrations, work, social interactions, entertainment and comfort.
Hidden deep within our head is the mechanism for hearing’the middle and inner ear. Composed of the tiniest bones in the body (hammer, anvil and stirrup), an eardrum and other finely designed parts, the ear is our contact with the world around us. This sensory window to the world helps us perceive, interpret and experience life. Most people consider vision the most important of the senses, yet those who have lost both hearing and vision think hearing is the most valuable. Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, expresses it well:
I am just as deaf as I am blind. The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus’the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man…. If! could live again I should do much more than I have for the deaf. I have found deafness to be a much greater handicap than blindness, God gave mankind the ability to hear and opened a door of perception that illuminates the mind and soothes the emotions. Perhaps we don’t properly value this sensory treasure.
Old Testament Era
From the days of Jubal (Gen. 4:21) until the restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (Neh. 7) music played a major role in biblical history. Music was incorporated in the sacred, as well as the secular. The Bible contains many songs of the Hebrews (i.e., the Psalms and the Song of Solomon), and a variety of musical instruments are mentioned: harps, drums, trumpets, cymbals and others. Included in David’s tabernacle was a lavish use of music. The primary purpose of sacred music in the Old Testament was praise and worship. More will be said in Chapter 3.
New Testament Era
‘Since the early Church was Jewish, to a great extent Old Testament patterns of worship were incorporated in apostolic worship.’ This being the case, music was certainly a part of New Testament activity. Singing was a common practice of Jesus and His disciples, as well as of the New Testament Church. Jesus sang a hymn with His disciples at the Last Supper just before going to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30). The anointed singing of Paul and Silas shook the Philippian jail at midnight (Acts 16:25). Paul admonished the church to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). He brews 2:12 says, ‘In the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.’
Paul used brass, cymbals, pipes, harps and trumpets as illustrations when teaching the Corinthian church about the virtue of love .and the proper use of spiritual gifts (I Cor. 13:1; 14:7-8). It is certain from these passages that the Church was familiar with musical instruments.
The Greek word psallo is used four times in the New Testament. The King James Version translates it as ‘making melody’ in Ephesians 5:19 and as ‘sing’ in Romans 15:9, First Corinthians 14:15 and James 5:13. The primary meaning of this word is ‘to twitch, to twang, to play a stringed instrument with the fingers.’
That first Church released so much emotion and power it is only natural they would find expression in song. Jesus Christ empowered them with His Spirit, making all things new, creating so much enthusiasm that music must have been a major tool of expression.
The Early Centuries
Even though the nature of songs of the early Church is mostly speculation, ‘It is likely that some of the hymns of the early Church were sung to what would be called folk melodies…. ‘ ‘The music of the early Church was most likely unmetrical plainsong, whereas secular music was probably metrical and dancelike.’ A musical device used in the early Church was antiphonal singing. The first known example of this type singing was in the church at Antioch, Syria, in the early fourth century: ‘Its members were divided into two semi-choruses, one of men, one of women and children, and the groups alternated with one another in the singing of the psalm-verses and combined in singing an Alleluia or, perhaps, some new refrain.’
Much of what we know about early church music is from records of church decisions concerning what was acceptable and what was not acceptable music. The controversy concerning music style is not new.
The writings and decisions of the patristic church show a keen awareness of the power of music and a desire to guard Christians against music that would damage their faith. The identification of moral values with music and the resistance to the use of secularized music in the church are nearly as old as the church itself. Early church fathers were aware of the earlier Greek doctrine of ethos which maintained that music has distinct moral qualities and effects. Music was believed to have power to influence people along specific emotional and behavioral lines. Consequently, no innovations or foreign melodic material were admissible. It is not difficult to understand the church fathers’ attitude toward the secular music of their day, since the early church existed in the midst of a largely pagan civilization.
Many chants developed during this period of church history, the most famous of which is the Gregorian chant. This monophonic music was named for Pope Gregory I (590-604), who is supposed to have arranged it and codified it, and it became the official sacred music of the Roman Catholic church. This music became known as ‘plainsong’ and is still considered by the Catholic church as the supreme model for sacred music, although the compendium is not celebrated in its entirety except in monasteries.
The Middle Ages
Most of medieval Europe was at least nominally Christian, and as a result ‘The medieval period saw much integration of secular and sacred art and music. At the same time music was held in a position of high honor in the church. To devout Christians, music was an important part of religious life.’
Up until this time church music had been confined to monophonic melody. In the seventh century the first step away from this tradition was the organum, or the organizing of a rigidly concurrent accompaniment of fifths or fourths on organ and later by choristers. To m ears this sound would have been considered crude.
As the chant continued in its evolution, it was in the 9th to the 12th century that a method known as ‘tropes’ developed. This involved florid melodies which were added to the beginning, end and sometimes between sections of the chant. These tropes later developed into liturgical dramas, which resemble modern church plays, and were performed in church porches or taken on the road in wagons.
In addition to the singing which was done almost entirely by the clergy or choirs, the ‘medieval carol’ was another music form that developed during this period. This song of joy and happiness was sung for devotional purposes by the laity outside the church. The carols were not liturgical and initially were not allowed in the church services.
During the Middle Ages congregational singing was practically unknown. One exception to this trend among the Bohemian followers of early Reformer named John Huss (1369-1415). ‘Huss believed that the people share in the church’s song, and he and his followers wrote many hymns for use in their religious gatherings.’
The trend of church music during the Reformation was toward congregational participation and the spreading of the gospel. Martin Luther, himself a poet and musician, brought to the Reformation movement a wide variety of music styles. One of Luther’s cherished desires was to see all of the common folk involved in the singing of the new spiritual folk songs. The popularity of Luther’s hymns was due to the spontaneity of the tunes and the edifying lyrics he used.
Lutheran hymns enjoyed widespread popularity because they filled a vacuum in people’s lives. For centuries the people had to be content to listen to the clergy do the singing; when the people did sing, more often than not, the popular religious songs were addressed to the Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, or the saints, not to God or to other people as songs of Christian experience. As Luther personalized the hymns, he also popularized them for the people of his day.
Luther’s tunes were selected from various sources, such as Latin hymns and secular melodies in use among the Bohemian Brethren. His music was music to which the people could readily relate. According to Erik Routley, no person in church music history has gone as far as Luther in crossing the ‘forbidden frontier between sacred and secular music.’ It is important to note that the differences between sacred music and secular music styles Were nominal compared to the extremes in our modern musical jungle. Also, the moral and philosophical differences between the Church and the world are mammoth in today’s culture, making a blending of the two far more problematic than in Luther’s day.
Luther’s successor, John Calvin, was not an artist, but a stern disciplinarian and the most systematic of the Reformers. Donald Ellsworth summarizes his view of church music in the following basic points:
1. Music is for the people, so it must be simple.
2. Music is for God, so it must be modest.
3. Simplicity and modesty are best attained by music of the unaccompanied voice.
We find in Calvin’s views the development of ‘sacred music.’ Calvin attempted to keep the doctrine pure by allowing only the strict use of Scripture in lyrics. Since Bibles were not readily available to the common man, this helped the laity to learn the Scriptures.
The Counter-Reformation, launched by the Catholic church in response to the Reformation, affected their music also.
Because they felt they had a proud history of quality art and music in their churches, they chose not to follow the practices of Luther in using the popular idioms of the day. The Roman church began an impressive display of their great and learned art and music. They placed emphasis on the spectacular, using their heritage of great artistic music in impressive concerts, parades, and productions.
The music of the Catholic church was written and performed by ‘professional’ musicians to whom music was merely an art form. The people still did not have opportunity to participate in worship.
In the 17th century, mysticism and Pietism influenced Christian music with the celebration of the mysteries of God and the importance of a personal devotion to Him. The mystics and Pietists used their music almost exclusively in personal devotion and expression. As a result the music and words of hymns and psalms be came more ‘spiritualized’ than secularized, because of strong religious philosophies which emphasized ‘religiosity’ and ‘solemnity.’
The 18th Century
One of the most influencing leaders of this period was a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Although he followed the teaching of Calvin, he disagreed with his position of singing exclusively the Psalms. He believed that if the songs were to reach the common people the words and music must be simple and relevant to their needs. Simplicity is one of the reasons his music dominated the church hymnody for 150 years. His songs were emotion ally passionate and appealed to the senses.
John and Charles Wesley were two of several revivalists of the 18th century. The Wesleyan revival, which later developed into the Methodist church, was accompanied by a profuse use of music, primarily of Charles Wesley’s prolific work of nearly 7,000 hymns. His music was simple, singable tunes and was usually learned upon its first hearing. His songs were born of an evangelical belief in salvation by faith, with emphasis on spiritual growth through ‘method’ or discipline.
Their Arminian theology, which was a rejection of Calvinism, emphasized personal responsibility in salvation and brought to birth the first ‘invitational’ songs and an awakening of evangelistic fervor. ‘Methodist hymnody became the most powerful tool of evangelism England ever knew.’
John Newton 1725-1807) was also an evangelical songwriter who influenced for change by refusing to use the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter and in its place using hymns, in order to provide simplicity and warmth to the people. His most famous song, ‘Amazing Grace,’ has continued to be an all-time favorite.
The 19th Century
Two major factors characterize this period of English and American Christian music history: one, the prevalent church music was merely a degradation of 19th- century secular music and the other, the appearance of the gospel song. Donald Ellsworth says,
The nineteenth century was a very active period for the amateur church musician. After the classical period ended, the talented secular musician and composer no longer wanted to associate with the music of the church. The influence and domination of the church played a steadily decreasing role in the life of the gifted composer. As a result, fewer composers created totally for the church. Those composers who did write for the church, in trying to emulate the secular Victorian style, actually misused it, and the distinction of church style which had been one of excellence became one of degeneracy. Church music during this time be came bad secular music.
The Methodist movement in America produced camp meetings in which spontaneous songs began to arise. Some of these rough songs were written down and printed, al though many were not. These songs reflected the language and phraseology of the primitive life of the people.
In the years of American slavery a strong evangelical movement began among the blacks. As a result the ‘Negro spirituals’ had great influence on the American hymns. The suffering of the blacks was expressed in their songs”Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ and ‘Deep River.’
The development of the gospel song during this period has a place of great importance in the evangelical heritage. Ellsworth describes this music as follows:
They are subjective songs emphasizing human experience and testimony. Frequently these songs press for a decision on the part of the listener. The music is normally simple, easily learned, with simple harmony and lilting rhythm… .It could be said that the gospel song is a compromise between the hymn and the Negro spiritual, and it combines the function of song and homily.
Dwight L. Moody (1837-99) used the music of Ira Sankey (1840-1908) in his mass evangelism effort. Moody used congregational and performers’ singing, through the directing of Sankey, to prepare the crowds for the sermon. Sankey used the Negro spirituals and folk style, which he felt appealed to the listeners.
The 20th Century
The move away from the formal sacred music that began in the 1800’s continued into this century. The gospel songs of Ira Sankey have had an important influence on 20th-century music with its emphasis upon evangelistic results and not musical tradition. The romantic spirit of this century has produced music of intense emotion that portrays the strangeness and wonder of life.
Music and singing always played an important role in Billy Sunday’s meetings, in which congregations were al ways given opportunity to participate. William Ellis, Sunday’s biographer, reports that:
Mr. Sunday set the city to singing. His sermons were framed in music’not music that was a performance by some soloist, but that ministered to his message. His gospel was sung as well as preached. The singing was as essential a part of the service as the sermon. Everybody likes good music, especially of a popular sort. Sunday saw that this taste was gratified.
The Billy Graham crusades have continued the tradition of Moody, Sankey and Sunday, using music that appeals to the plain man.
The rapid changes this century has experienced in industry, technology, business, culture, morality and religion have affected Christian music in radical ways. ‘Change’ has become the catchword for a culture swept dizzily along, making it more open to musical change than any previous generation.
The growth of Pentecostalism, with its lively worship, emphasis on experience and its call for renewal, challenged a stagnant, traditional church to leave its ineffective practices. Pentecostal churches were lavish in their use of gospel singing and allowed audience participation. The 1960’s ushered in the age of the guitar, along with amplification equipment, that emphasized rhythm and heavy beat. It is ironic that performers like Elvis Presley, Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis learned some of their music style in Pentecostal churches and then brought blends of that to the entertainment industry. Perhaps this is the reason some Pentecostal churches, although they are conservative in lifestyle, adhere to very liberal trends in contemporary music.
The origins of rock and roll are difficult to determine. The following words of Jann S. Wenner state it well:
Whenever some enterprising cultural excavator attempts to pinpoint the origins of rock and roll, he or she soon discovers there’s a bewildering array of fossil records to examine. Just like artifacts from an archaeological dig, some have survived; some are known to exist but are lost and unrecoverable; and others are simply hypothesized from circumstantial evidence’the proverbial missing links…. Into the melting pot you can add.. .jazz, folk, country western, swing, ragtime, gospel, ethnic balladry and Broadway pop… .At some time in the early fifties, rock and roll emerged as an entity quite distinct from its antecedents.
The acceptance of rock in Christian music has crossed many church boundaries. The affluence of our society has increased the buying power for musical assortments, technology has produced the recorded music industry, and radio and television have filled the modern soundscape with musical variety and abundance, accelerating this passive musical acceptance.
The most striking phenomenon about contemporary Christian music, when viewed against the backdrop of history, is change. The ancient Church used simple musical styles for hundreds of years with only the slightest change. Traditions in music were held as a sacred part of the Christian heritage and were not to be tampered with. Church music was celebrated as distinct and sacred, as opposed to the secular. Much of modern church music has forsaken tradition and musical distinction and has pursued the course of unpredictable popular appeal.
Even though the Church in past generations used secular music styles, there is no precedent to compare with the extremes of the current musical labyrinth. As the secular world continues to become more immoral, the distance between the world and the Church should be widening. Dangers do exist, as some factions of Christianity indulge with unrestrained participation in the secular trends of this day. This quasi-marriage between secular music and sacred music can ultimately strip the Church of its power and dilute its message, making it in effective to help a world that needs its influence so desperately.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’